Homeschooling, City-Style

Homeschooler Ocean, 5, of Cobble Hill, playing with his 2-year-old sister, Billie. “When school was created, it prepared people for the industrial revolution or factory jobs,” says mom Oona Hart, who shares homeschooling duties with her husband, Danny Timmins. “It’s limiting.”Photo: Jocelyn Lee

It’s 1:15 on a Monday afternoon, and two dozen kids, mostly girls in brightly colored leggings, are in the gymnastics studio at Asphalt Green on 90th Street and York Avenue, doing what kids in gymnastics classes do. They’re stretching against a wall, palms pressed flat, arms overhead. They’re jumping and fidgeting on a puffy mat as an instructor demonstrates tumbling moves. Up in the balcony, meanwhile, their moms are in semi-distracted kid-tending mode. With one eye, they’re observing their blossoming Gabby Douglases, while with the other they’re reading their iPads, chatting with one another, keeping track of smaller children—or all of the above.

The scene is totally normal, except for one thing. It’s a weekday. At lunch time. Aren’t these kids supposed to be in school?

They are in school, sort of. These are homeschoolers. They can take gymnastics in the middle of the day because they don’t leave their houses each morning, laden with backpacks and lunch, to spend six hours in classrooms down the block or in a different borough at what their parents call “regular school.” Their mothers (and a few of their fathers) are their teachers and their principals, their recess monitors and their librarians, having taken over from New York City (or Dalton, or Sacred Heart) the responsibility for their children’s education.

The term homeschool used to evoke images of conservative Christians in the rural districts of western and southern states, who, in protest against secular education and the eroding morals of the nation’s youth, took matters into their own hands. The earliest homeschooling resources—the curricula and the online networks and message boards—were developed by Christian activists. The Internet was a boon for these parents, whose interests were aligned but who often lived hundreds of miles apart. “Do we want our children to be like the ultraliberal teachers that they have in public school,” asked the vice-president of the Southern Baptist Convention in 2002, “or do we want them to be like their Christian parents?”

But in recent years, as the number of children being homeschooled has exploded from 1.1 million in 2003 to 1.5 million in 2007 (or nearly 3 percent of the school-age population), according to the U.S. Department of Education, so has the number of homeschoolers in American cities spiked. According to the department’s most recent data, some 320,000 kids are being homeschooled in apartments and walk-ups, in brownstones and housing projects nationwide. There are homeschooling support groups providing resources, classes, and curriculum help. In New York City last year, 2,766 children were being homeschooled, up from 2,550 in 20010–11. (And that’s a low estimate, according to New York homeschool advocates, because it doesn’t include preschoolers or teenagers over 17.)

Urbanites cite many reasons for choosing homeschooling, but religion is rarely one of them. Laurie Spigel, who runs the website Home School NYC, estimates that “maybe one percent or less” of New York homeschool families are religiously motivated. “You can only generalize about homeschoolers as much as you can generalize about New Yorkers,” says Spigel. Mostly, though, New York City homeschoolers are “educated, middle-class people,” she says, who don’t like what’s on offer from the Department of Ed and can’t afford or don’t want to pay private-school tuition. In this way, New Yorkers who homeschool reflect the homeschool population at large: The greatest proportion of homeschool parents in the United States earn between $50,000 and $75,000 a year and have a bachelor’s degree or more.

Why Teach at Home?

Urban homeschoolers frequently cite the homogenization of public education as the reason they chose to take over their kids’ schooling. With federal and state education policy placing ever-greater emphasis on core standards and standardized tests, many parents want to give their kids something more creative, flexible, and engaging than a school day they see as factory-made. The one-size-fits-all model is especially unappealing to parents of children who are “special” in some way: unevenly intelligent, intensely shy, immature, or in need of a flexible schedule to accommodate their professional acting or dancing or musical careers. In New York, even parents in the best districts complain about overcrowding and about teachers, who, however motivated and skilled, have their hands full managing the unruly few who can reign in some classrooms. Then there are the problems that come with all traditional schools: the bullying, the playground politics, and the escalating gadget and fashion arms races. According to the DOE, nearly 88 percent of U.S. homeschool parents express concern about the school environment, citing drugs, negative peer pressure, and general safety.

Kristin Sposito was one of the moms at the Monday-afternoon gymnastics class. She and her husband, Brett, decided to homeschool when their daughter, Maya, was 5. The Spositos, who lived in Portland, Oregon, at the time, looked around at their friends’ children who were going off to school. The school day seemed very long for children so young, Kristin thought. And the kids who did go to school came home “with bad attitudes right off the bat,” she says. The children were mouthy; family relationships grew strained; the joy of family life was somehow lost; and the children were none the better for it. “It’s not like they were away all day and then came home and were brilliant. And I thought, You know what? This is a waste of time. I could do it better myself.” The family moved to New York City five years ago. Maya is now 12. Neither she nor her two brothers, Jonah, 9, and Simon, 4, has ever been to school, and Sposito is happy with her choice. “It’s like a big secret, like we’re getting away with something,” she says.

“Children are naturally curious, but in school all they’re taught is to get the right answer, which is stifling,” says Rina Crane, who homeschools her daughter Mita, 7, in the Bronx.Photo: Jocelyn Lee

A Homeschooling Primer

It’s relatively easy to begin homeschooling in New York. Homeschoolers need only file paperwork with the Department of Education stating their intention to homeschool, outlining their curriculum goals, and promising to fulfill certain requirements that correspond to public schools. Parents do not have to be certified or credentialed (nor do any tutors they use) and don’t have to abide by any particular schedule.

Some homeschool families largely emulate a traditional school day: The parents make lesson plans; start and end at a specific time; use textbooks and workbooks; and give homework, tests, and report cards. “Some families use correspondence curriculum. They say, ‘We are at home for these hours.’ They ring the bell and use the blackboard,” says Spigel.

But in New York and other cities, where cultural offerings are so rich, many homeschooling families rely heavily on the city’s cultural institutions. The New York homeschool population has grown to such an extent, in fact, that many city institutions now offer classes (often at a deep discount) just for homeschoolers. The New-York Historical Society has a program in which homeschoolers learn American history through Broadway musicals and the artifacts in its collection; this fall, it’s teaching kids about the westward expansion through Oklahoma! and the works of the artists in the Hudson River School. At Robofun, on the Upper West Side, homeschool students work in pairs to learn architecture, computer programming, robotics, and engineering by building their own robots. One of the most popular programs among New York homeschooling families, and one that fulfills the city’s phys-ed requirement, is Wayfinders, a role-playing fantasy program in which kids run around Central Park in teams with large foam swords playing an epic version of capture the flag.

As children get older and their educational needs become more sophisticated, many homeschool parents reach out to the homeschool networks online and band together with other families to hire private tutors for specialty subjects—advanced science and math, foreign languages, dance. Other parents share their own expertise. Actor parents will help a bunch of kids stage a show; artist parents will teach a painting class; parents trained in classics will teach Latin. Sposito, a civil engineer, has recently started teaching physics to her son Jonah and one of his friends based on a curriculum called “Real Science-4-Kids.” The boys did a physics lab the morning of Maya’s gymnastics class. “We threw some balls, rolled marbles, and talked about inertia,” Sposito says.

At the far end of the homeschooling spectrum are the “unschoolers,” folks who have no set learning agenda. “ ‘Unschooling’ is learning without any sort of curriculum whatsoever,” says Amy Milstein, who runs the website UnschoolingNYC. “It’s learning through life.” Rather than follow any particular math curriculum, for example, unschoolers learn to multiply fractions when they double a recipe while they’re cooking dinner. They learn to add and subtract in their heads when they count their change at the store; they do percentages by calculating tips. In unschooling, there is no memorization of multiplication tables, no spelling tests, no grammar lessons. “I think what takes the fun out of learning is ‘You must do this. It’s a lesson. That’s the way it’s done,’ ” says Milstein. “It’s an unnatural thing that we’ve come to believe is natural. Of course, there will be gaps in their knowledge. But they’ll know how to find out what they need to know.”

Testing is the great equalizer between homeschoolers or unschoolers and children following the traditional route. Math and reading tests are required at regular intervals, beginning in fourth grade. Parents can choose from a list of accepted tests, or they can opt for the same citywide tests that all public-schoolers take (arrangements can be made for homeschoolers to test at a public school alongside their peers). Tests taken at home must be administered by a certified teacher or another qualified person agreed upon by the superintendent of your school district. Parents must file test results with their end-of-year assessment. Under the city’s regulations, children who score below the 33rd percentile of national norms or show no progress compared with a previous year’s test will have their homeschooling program placed on probation. If that happens, parents must submit a plan of remediation to be reviewed by the school district.

Does Homeschooling Work?

According to a 2011 report from the National Home Education Research Institute, which is, to be sure, a homeschooling advocacy group, homeschoolers typically score 15 to 30 percentile points above public-school students on academic-achievement tests. In 2002, the College Board, which administers the SAT, says that homeschoolers averaged 72 points, or 7 percent, higher than the national average. In terms of college acceptance, admissions directors say homeschoolers are evaluated just as other kids are—on their academic achievement, test scores, letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities, and so on (See “What the Harvard Admissions Director Thinks,” at left). Students coming from a homeschool graduated college within four years at a higher rate than their peers—66.7 percent compared with 57.5 percent—and earned higher grade-point averages, according to a study that compared students at a midwestern university from 2004 to 2009.

But this year, the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, published the following statement: “[The NEA] believes that homeschooling programs based on parental choice cannot provide the student with a comprehensive education experience.” What homeschooled children are most deprived of, homeschooling critics say, are socialization skills. School isn’t just where kids develop intellectually—it’s where they learn to cooperate, face social challenges, and work out their differences. Kids who are homeschooled, critics note, often develop a sense of entitlement. Despite the way they were educated, not everything in the workplace and the world beyond school is custom-tailored to an individual’s needs. Danielle Everett, who is 24, grew up in Queens and was homeschooled from the time she was a preschooler until she went away to college. “I always struggled socially,” she says. “I didn’t have close friends until I was 15. I don’t think I have ever met a homeschooler who doesn’t have social awkwardness.” When she has kids, she says, she’ll homeschool them—“just not all the way through. A good educational experience should include learning how to have relationships.”

Other educators note that the U.S. population is fast becoming majority nonwhite, and that the ranks of homeschoolers are increasingly unrepresentative of the population at large. Amy Stuart Wells, a professor at Teachers College at Columbia University, says homeschoolers aren’t learning to be members of a diverse society. “I don’t want my son to think just like me,” says Wells. “I want him to be challenged and confronted with other points of view. We have to question homeschooling from that standpoint.”

Homeschoolers themselves, however dedicated to their choice they may be, acknowledge its challenges. For one, homeschooling is expensive. Sposito pays more than $7,000 a year in classes and tutors for Maya and Jonah (and, of course, she still pays school taxes). She estimates she’s in the mid-range of homeschool families. “I know lots of people paying $4,000 a year for violin and $2,000 for science classes,” she says. And some families pay for private tutors and classes at levels that can add up to tuition at Fieldston. And of course, one parent staying home means one less salary. Disposable income, in fact, is the thing Sposito misses most about having a more conventional life. “There are significant things I wish my family could afford—more travel, renovations to our apartment—that we can’t have because we’ve been living on one income for a long time,” she says. Her husband supports the homeschooling effort, but is not engaged in the day-to-day teaching and would not, Sposito says, have chosen it on his own. He feels the burden of his breadwinning role in the family acutely. An engineer who inspects the structural safety of the city’s bridges, he often feels stressed at work. And when he does, he asks his wife to consider returning to work. For her part, Sposito feels the weight of her commitment to homeschooling as well as the magnitude of her dual role: primary parent and full-time educator. “I do feel responsible for everything, being their mom and their teacher, but at least I am in touch with their learning.”

And then there’s the pure exasperation homeschool parents can feel after spending all day with their children—not just teaching but cooking, cleaning, shopping, mediating arguments, and more—without a break from breakfast until bedtime. “Of course, my kids bicker and make messes and sometimes don’t want to brush their teeth or clean up or practice their violin or do their schoolwork,” says Sposito. “I’ve called my husband at work, in tears, because I didn’t think I could deal with the kids that day.”

On balance, she points out, she’s still thrilled for the opportunity to be able to educate her children the way she wants to and to spend the bulk of her time in a relaxed and playful way with them. But on those days when things aren’t going so smoothly, Sposito says, she’s not above a threat: If her kids don’t shape up, she tells, them, she’ll go back to work and send them to “regular school.”

Extra Help
Four good homeschooling resources.
New York Home Educators’ Network
Learn about state regulations, join e-mail lists, and find support groups.
Actively & Positively Parenting & Lovingly Educating
A.p.p.l.e. organizes daytrips and themed outings and accepts students of all ages.
Different Directions
This Manhattan-based group offers a range of fee-based classes in visual and performing arts.
New York City Home Educators Alliance
A social organization for local homeschoolers, NYCHEA’s membership dues are $36 per year. —Keith Mulvihill

Additional reporting by Keith Mulvihill and Alexa Tsoulis-Reay.

Homeschooling, City-Style